Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt Nominated as US Anti-Semitism Envoy

Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt Nominated as US Anti-Semitism Envoy

Diverse array of Jewish groups welcome announcement, which also included tapping of New York LGBT synagogue Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to Commission on International Religious Freedom.

American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt poses for photographer at the Rome Film festival in Rome, October 17, 2016. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt poses for photographer at the Rome Film festival in Rome, October 17, 2016. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The White House on Friday announced its appointment of Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt to serve as US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, drawing praise from Jewish groups across the political spectrum.

Lipstadt was a favorite for the role, and pressure had mounted on the Biden administration to fill the position amid an uptick in antisemitic incidents in recent months, and with added urgency after a swastika was found on Monday etched into an elevator in the US State Department building, near the vacant office of the antisemitism envoy.

Lipstadt, 74, is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, where she was the founding director of the Institute for Jewish Studies.

She is the author of “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945”; “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”; “The Eichmann Trial” and “Holocaust: An American Understanding” and “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”

Lipstadt is best known to the wider public from her appearance in a landmark British legal case in which she fought a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving. That experience was portrayed by superstar actor Rachel Weisz in the Hollywood feature film “Denial.”

She has also served in several roles at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including twice as a Presidential Appointee to the Museum’s Council, and was asked by former president George W. Bush to represent the US at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the White House noted in its biography of Lipstadt.

Atlanta-based historian Deborah Lipstadt in Jerusalem, July 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The historian received a BA from City College in New York and an MA and PhD from Brandeis University. She is also fluent in Hebrew.

Last year, during the election, she broke a longstanding taboo on comparing present-day American politicians to the Nazis and endorsed an ad by the Jewish Democratic Council of America likening the Trump administration to 1930s Germany. Lipstadt said Holocaust analogies were still off-limits, but she could see parallels to the rise of the Nazis.

“I would say in the attacks we’re seeing on the press, the courts, academic institutions, elected officials and even, and most chillingly, the electoral process, that this deserves comparison,” she said at the time, referring to the JDCA ad. “It’s again showing how the public’s hatred can be whipped up against Jews.”

Lipstadt will be the first nominee who will need to be confirmed by the Senate since the post was first created in 2004. Last year, Congress moved to elevate the position to ambassador level, with more funding and easier access to the secretary of state and the president. If confirmed, Lipstadt will be the fifth individual in the post.

A diverse array of Jewish organizations were quick to laud the nomination, from Americans for Peace Now, to the Jewish Federations of North America, Democratic Majority for Israel, the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the National Council for Jewish Women.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan welcomed the announcement as well, noting that “Lipstadt has dedicated her life to fighting antisemitism and preserving the memory of the Holocaust.”

Erdan urged her to use her new position to combat “a new antisemitism [which] aims to delegitimize and isolate Israel, claiming to care about human rights in order to single out the one and only Jewish state from the international community.”

Only the right-wing Zionist Organization of America opposed the nomination, for her comparison of the Trump administration to 1930’s Germany, saying she displayed “partisan left wing bias.”

“Lipstadt obscenely and falsely likened President Trump to Nazi murderers and propagandists; helped promote a video that wrongly did the same,” said a statement from ZOA president Mort Klein, adding that her remarks should be disqualifying.

Lipstadt was nominated along with three other public figures to serve in key religious affairs roles.

White House National Security Council director for Partnerships and Global Engagement Rashad Hussain was tapped to serve as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

And the administration appointed Khizr Khan and Sharon Kleinbaum as new members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Khizr Khan gained notoriety in 2016 when — as the father of a slain US Navy Seal — he rebuked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention for having “sacrificed nothing” for his country and waved a copy of the US constitution, which he urged the Republican to read. The Pakistani Muslim immigrant is also the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project.

Khizr Khan, father of deceased Muslim US soldier, holds up a booklet of the US Constitution as he delivers remarks on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Kleinbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, which she guided through the AIDS crisis in the 1990s.

“Under her leadership as senior rabbi, CBST has become a powerful voice in the movement for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions,” the White House said.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum greeting Muslim worshippers outside the Islamic Center at NYU. (Adam Zucker)

Kleinbaum also sits on New York City’s Commission on Human Rights, serves on Mayor de Blasio’s Faith-Based Advisory Council, and serves on the boards of the liberal New York Jewish Agenda and the New Israel Fund.

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